Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Disturbing It Is

This little event goes down on my Top Ten Incidents of Idiocy list (which I just started this moment).

A little backdrop:

Those in these parts may have some passing familiarity with the lonely Cape Cod outpost called Provincetown. At the outer tip of the Cape, it is known for a number of things. One is that it is a haven for artists. The other is that it is a haven for gays and lesbians. Not that there is anything wrong with that -- but for a community known for its acceptance of all kinds (and I mean all kinds -- the sidewalks in the summer time there look like the cover of a Captain Beyond album -- creds to anyone who can claim afficion of that band), you'd think their town mothers and fathers would be pretty open minded on the subject of art.

But you would be mistaken.

Provincetown's local government holds its meetings in the Judge Welsh Hearing Room, on the wall of which hangs an oil painting depicting the Pilgrims signing the Mayflower Compact in Provincetown, where they first landed before shoving onward to Plymouth. The painting is by Max Bohm, a turn-of-the-century artist of worldwide repute, and has been hanging in the town hall for as long as anyone there can remember.

But no more.

Here's a report from The Cape Codder, a local weekly that has somewhat of a liberal bent:

The Max Bohm painting of the Pilgrims voting for the Mayflower Compact, which has hung above the board of selectmen for as long as anyone can remember, will come down soon.

On a motion by Selectwoman Sarah Peake, the board decided Monday to ask the art commission to take it down and replace it with another painting from the town's vast collection.

Peake said the idea came to her after touring the new Provincetown Art Association and Museum wing, which was opened to the public over the weekend. She was so impressed to see that many of the paintings on display were on loan from the town's collection, she said.

Peake argued that the painting should be taken down because it does not show a single woman, and "the only one not holding a ballot in the painting is the Native American."

He may not be holding a ballot, Selectman Richard Olson said, "but he is holding a tomahawk." Olson several years ago had suggested taking this painting down, too.


Anne Packard, artist and gallery owner, and the granddaughter of Bohm, had no idea the selectmen would contemplate removing this painting. "I think it is so sad," she said. "It has been there for as long as I can remember and I am 72. It's been there for at least 60 years. This shows the deterioration of Provincetown and what we stand for," she said. "My grandfather was one of the founding fathers of the art association, and of the Beachcomber Club. That painting is perfect for that room, fits it fine. I just think it is such a shame."

The story implies that Peake's interest in removing the painting grew out of some deliberation about including other artworks on a rotating basis. But that's not how one of her colleagues characterized the event.

The Boston Globe's Brian McGrory, not widely recognized for his hatred of political correctness, put it this way:

...Selectwoman Sarah Peake spun her chair around near the end of the Nov. 14 meeting, gazed up at an oversized oil painting depicting the Pilgrims voting on the Mayflower Compact when they first landed in Provincetown, and declared that she wanted it removed....

...If you don't believe me, let's go straight to Cheryl Andrews, the chairwoman of the Board of Selectmen. She also happened to cast the only vote against the painting's removal, making her a rare voice of sanity on the board.

''There's this lovely oil painting," she said yesterday. ''The thing is huge. It's been up there since forever. It was painted by Max Bohm, who's considered quite something in local art circles.
''And Sarah Peake turns around and faces it, and it's government. They're voting. She says, 'I'd like to talk about this painting. I find this painting disturbing.' That's a quote. She said it's disturbing to her because there are no women in the painting and the only one not holding a ballot is the Native American Indian. And I thought, 'Here we go.' "

I called Peake and asked her why. She sounded normal, even pleasant, and explained that her proposal was mostly born of a tremendous pride in the town's vast art collection, and she wanted to give other paintings the chance to hang in such a prominent spot behind the selectmen....

...The former head of the town's Art Commission wrote to the local paper that the vote was ''an act of idiocy." Bohm's granddaughter, Anne Packard, herself a noted local artist, said, ''It offends me because they're trying to change the history of the town, or just history."

I have a perspective I'd like to offer.

Twenty years ago, I served as a conservative legislator here in Masachusetts. During one fractious budget debate, one of my colleagues offered an amendment cutting out funds for the Massachusetts Art Council, on the grounds that it had assisted in the funding of an art exhibit that featured (among its works) a highly controversial work by Andres Cerrano entitled Piss Christ. You might assume that a conservative would be offended that taxpayer money would be used to help promote such an offensive piece of work and support the amendment. I didn't. There is a lot of art that I'd opine belongs in a dumpster and not in a gallery, but that's just me. I don't make the rules for everyone else's tastes, in art, music, writing or any other expressive endeavor.

So I find it ironic that, in this bastion of liberalism and freedom of expression (artistic, sexual and whatever else) called Provincetown, the majority of the Board of Selectpersons would remove a significant painting by a renowned artist from its walls because the accurately reflected political and cultural subject matter was "disturbing" to them -- 385 years later !!!!

I wonder what these folks would say if one of their own local artists were to create a work that, say, revised DaVinci's Lat Supper painting to depict a homosexual orgy. Would the painting make it into the newly-designated rotation to take the place of Bohm's work?

It's just one more example of the rampant hypocrisy of the politically correct.

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